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Families of developmentally disabled seek more funding for caregivers

Just one month before the state budget is due, numerous interest groups are converging on the state Capitol, asking that they be included in the budget.

Among the more impassioned efforts is one from developmentally disabled people and their caregivers. They are seeking $45 million in state subsidies to pay workers more money to comply with the rising minimum wage in New York.

Groups providing care for the developmentally disabled and their advocates spoke at the state Capitol on Tuesday.
Credit Karen DeWitt / WRVO News

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature last year phased in an increase that will eventually lead to a $15 hourly wage in New York City and a $12.50 wage upstate.

Former Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, who has a son with severe development disabilities, said the money is “loose change” in a $160 billion state budget. He said worker shortages with vacancy rates as high as 20 percent at some facilities have led to employees working overtime while not earning enough to live decently themselves.

“They can’t pay their bills, they qualify for food stamps, there’s something wrong,” Weisenberg said. “The state has an obligation and a responsibility to pay these people a living wage.”

He said the overstressed and underpaid workers could lead to inadequate care for the patients, and a return to the bad old days of neglect of the disabled. Weisenberg has said his own son, Ricky, was abused by a worker at a care center on Long Island, and he filed a lawsuit.

“We’ll have more neglect and abuse,” Weisenberg predicted. “More deaths. And we can’t let this happen.”

Under the state’s laws, wages for fast-food workers are rising at a more rapid pace than those for the rest of the work force. Currently, the minimum pay for fast-food workers is $12 an hour in New York City and $10.75 in the rest of the state. For all other workers, it’s lower: between $10.50 and $11 an hour in New York City and $10 an hour in the rest of the state.

Glenn Liebman with the Mental Health Association said the disparity has resulted in some adverse consequences. He said agencies that provide services to the mentally ill also are suffering staffing shortages, as workers go to McDonald’s to seek better pay with fewer responsibilities.

“If you’re McDonald’s, you can raise McNuggets by a quarter to help pay for the cost of a minimum wage increase,” Liebman said. “We can’t charge people more money.”

Groups representing the mentally ill also want $28 million more for residential housing for people with chronic mental illness. They also complain of chronic worker shortages in the group homes. Cuomo has proposed $10 million, but Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, said a total of $38 million is needed.

“It’s a rounding error for this budget, but it will save our housing,” Rosenthal said.

They hope the money will be included in the Assembly and Senate budget plans, which are due out later in March, and the groups’ requests will be part of the larger budget negotiations.

They have support among Democrats and Republicans in the legislature, including GOP Sen. Jim Tedisco, who had a brother with developmental disabilities. He said his brother sometimes became upset and disoriented because of the rapid turnover of his caregivers.

“I, my colleagues up here, will not leave this budget session that does not have that funding in there,” said Tedisco, who pledged to use “every ounce of strength to get it done.”

Cuomo, speaking at a Cabinet meeting, did not directly address the issue, but said he sees few sticking points between himself and the Legislature in the upcoming budget negotiations.

But the governor said Republicans in the state Senate are still opposing his plan to extend an income tax surcharge on millionaires when it expires later this year. The tax brings in $3.5 billion a year.

“I don’t know how you complete a budget without a millionaires’ tax,” Cuomo said.

The governor said the money is needed to pay for middle-class tax cuts – which were agreed to last year and are scheduled to begin phasing in later this year – as well as a plan to provide free tuition at public colleges for New Yorkers earning less than $125,000 a year, and more funding for public schools.

Meanwhile, the Senate GOP and its ruling coalition partners, the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, issued their annual report on state revenues. They say there is actually a half-billion more coming for next year than the governor originally estimated.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.